Thursday, May 9, 2013

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

In gauging fathomless deeps with his little mean excise-rod, and in staggering over the universe with his rusty stiff-legged compasses, he had meant to do great things.  Within the limits of his short tether he had tumbled about, annihilating the flowers of existence with greater singleness of purpose than many of the blatant personages whose company he kept.

I feel like it's been forever since I've been able to review a book.  Forgive me, I've been bogged down with a couple of papers--one of which is on James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which is a fantastic book that I will review here very soon.  In the meantime, here's a review of Charles Dickens' Hard Times, which is also good.  If you find Dickens to be a little overwhelming at times, like I do, it has the virtue of being very short.  (For a Dickens novel that is--I think it is his shortest.)

Hard Times follows the story of Thomas Gradgrind and his children, Tom and Louisa.  Gradgrind brings them up to revere "facts" and shun "fancy"--a burlesque of John Mill's Utilitarian philosophy, which caused a nervous breakdown in his son John Stuart Mill similar to the one that Louisa experiences late in the novel.  Louisa's crippled sense of humanity leads her to accept the proposal of her father's friend Bounderby, who is a satire of capitalist pride and swagger and an even more extreme opponent of "fancy" than Gradgrind:

"Ladies and gentlemen, I am Josiah Bounderby of Coketown.  Since you have done my wife and myself the honor of drinking our healths and happiness, I suppose I must acknowledge the same; though, as you all know me, and know what I am, and what my extraction was, you won't expect a speech from a man who, when he sees a Post, says 'that's a Post,' and when he sees a Pump, says 'that's a Pump,' and is not to be got to call a Post a Pump, or a Pump a Post, or ether of them a Toothpick."

For his part, Tom's lack of imagination (something explicitly associated with sympathy for others to Dickens' era) turns him into a moral creep: He induces Louisa to marry Bounderby to make Bounderby less bothersome to him, and later steals a hefty sum of money from the bank and pins it on a poor but saintly factory worker.  Louisa, forced by the romantic advances of a cretinous stranger to examine the lack of love in her own marriage, accuses her father of crushing her spirit:

"How could you give me life, and take from me all the inappreciable things that raise it from the state of conscious death?  Where are the graces of my soul?  Where are the sentiments of my heart?  What have you done, O father, what have you done, with the garden that should have bloomed once, in this great wilderness here!"

She struck herself with both her hands upon her bosom.

It's a great, touching moment, and it forces Gradgrind to reevaluate his "system," to have his own kind of breakdown.  It's also echoed toward the end of the book, when Bounderby's crony Bitzer (another student brought up in the Gradgrind-Bounderby system) refuses to let Tom off the hook for the robbery:

"Bitzer," said Mr. Gradgrind, broken down, and miserably submissive to him, "have you a heart?"

"The circulation, sir," returned Bitzer, smiling at the oddity of the question, "couldn't be carried on without one.  No man, sir, acquainted with the facts established by Harvey related to the circulation of the blood, can doubt that I have a heart."

When Dickens is at his best, he's really great--few people can match the mixture of humor, pathos, and absurdity that's encapsulated there.  Elsewhere the book is overwritten, and Dickens intrudes on his narrative with abandon in a way that's always bothered me.  And while Hard Times is tightly plotted, and each particular character is indispensable to the narrative, not all of them are equally fun to read.  For one, I didn't have much interest in the working class character, Stephen Blackpool--not because I'm an elitist, but because of his meek proletarian saintliness.  I'm also not fond of the way that his name foreshadows the fact that he literally falls into a giant, dark hole at the end of the book.

But Hard Times has a lot of beauty and a lot of humor, and overall, I really enjoyed it.  Its conviction that imagination and sympathy can be as useful and as powerful as facts and figures remains more relevant today than I think many would like to admit.

1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

I really like Hard Times. It's really funny, especially the first couple chapters. I didn't like Blackpool much either, but it was mostly because (if I remember right) he spoke in dialect the whole book, one of my pet peeves.